Quick: How many biopics about black public figures can you identify from the last decade?
Selma. Get On Up. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. 12 Years a Slave. The Butler. Fruitvale Station. 42. The Last King of Scotland. The Pursuit of Happyness. And what do all of these films have in common?
I’ll give you a hint: They are all focused on the extraordinary lives of black men. Yes, there have been others that do include woman-centric stories—but you’ve likely forgotten about them because they weren’t very good, and/or were relegated to made-for-TV status. (Selma, to be fair, does fold women into its narrative, but Martin Luther King is still the prism through which these stories are told.)
Looking for a decent, memorable biopic about a black woman is like waiting for Haley’s Comet. To find one, you’d have to jump all the way back to Halle Berry’s Emmy-winning turn in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999, and before that, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It, and before that, Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, in 1972. Bessie, Dee Rees’ feature about blues legend Bessie Smith on HBO joins the ranks of those aforementioned films with a stellar cast and (mostly) smart, engaging storytelling. And it’s probably the boldest and most revealing of all of them, offering a side of black femininity that is so rarely explored in pop culture.
Based on Chris Albertson’s 1972 book Bessie, Rees’ script covers much of Smith’s short life in just under two hours. We see Bessie, played confidently by Queen Latifah, talk her way into becoming a mentee of the famous blues singer Ma Rainey (Mo’nique, reminding us why she got that Oscar a few years ago, albeit for a radically different performance). She flourishes, eventually breaking out from behind Ma’s shadows, and catching the attention of Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams, wonderful as usual), the man who would eventually become her husband in a volatile marriage. She also, of course, has her moments of adversity, dealing with racist white people who wish to capitalize on her fame and black music executives who find her brash music and image “too black” to properly “uplift the race,” all while she battles an alcohol addiction.
Ordinarily, a biopic that attempts to cover too much of one person’s life from beginning to end—no matter how short that life was—feels overstuffed and unfocused, but it’s a testament to Rees’ storytelling abilities that Bessie hits just the right amount of important milestones in Smith’s life while also weaving a compelling narrative out of her many relationships with her brother, her lovers, and Ma Rainey. (The only exception is the inclusion of flashbacks to her abusive, motherless childhood—that most hackneyed of biopic tropes—which are never satisfyingly developed.) Mo’nique especially is a wonder to behold, practically stealing every scene that she’s in with Latifah—her Ma is a complex mix of “take no mess,” unfiltered guidance, warmth, and even jealousy (once Bessie starts to steal the spotlight from her, she sends her on her way). She also gets some of the best and most profound lines, and delivers them deliciously: “I heard you in the show, I know you can sang,” she casually quips after first meeting Bessie, who has snuck onto her private train to ask for a job in her tour. “So stay or jump, bitch.”
Bessie is a role that seems tailor-made for Latifah (and in fact, it sort of is—she’s been loosely attached to the project for the past 22 years). It’s not just the fact that we’ve seen her flourish in an early-20th Century, jazz-age setting, as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago. And it would perhaps be too simplistic to try to draw parallels between Latifah’s long-rumored (but never openly confirmed) sexuality and Smith’s openly fluid sexuality. What makes Latifah so perfect to embody the remarkable blueswoman is the way both women rejected social and gender norms—the former made a name for herself rapping “U.N.I.T.Y.” during a time when misogyny in hip-hop was on the rise; the latter fought hard to control her own career and live life as fast and freely as she wanted, at a time when black women were particularly marginalized in America.
Bessie is also the perfect fit for Rees, who wrote and directed Pariah, a beautiful film about a young black teenager learning to embrace her sexuality as a lesbian. Rees’ unbridled insistence on presenting Bessie as she apparently really was, instead of an idealized, more cinematic version of herself, sets this biopic apart from other films about black women, and most other biopics in general. Whereas the biopic genre will often try to insert a straight-and-narrow romance into the narrative regardless of how many significant lovers there actually were in the subject’s life (as Lady Sings the Blues does with Billy Dee Williams’ Louis McKay character), Rees makes it clear that Jack Gee was not the only man—or person, for that matter—in her life. She takes some creative liberties with this—Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Bessie’s longtime lover in the film, was apparently not a real person (nor is there any indication that Lucille and Jack openly shared Bessie as a lover while living together). But Smith was openly involved with both men and women, and cared little for fidelity (though she did try to hide her affairs from her very jealous husband, who was equally a philanderer). It’s refreshing to see Rees’ Bessie offer such a varied and complex image of black women.
In an interview about the film, Rees expanded upon her belief that it was easier to be a gay black woman during Smith’s time than it is now: “Look at Moms Mabley, who was known as “Pops Mabley” offstage because she wore men’s clothes … in terms of the entertainment industry and music, there emerged this “anything goes” culture. If you were bold enough to put it out there, people accepted it.” She’s got a point—it’s hard to imagine Bessie being so forthcoming had it been made 22 years ago. But maybe, with filmmakers like Rees, we’re finally reaching a pivotal moment in the ways in which black history is remembered onscreen.
'Bessie' is currently being broadcast on HBO.
[Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.]